El Jadida, Morocco - The social representation of the other in the Moroccan popular culture of Islam is mainly grounded in the culturally embedded conception of possession popularized by a maraboutic cultural worldview.
El Jadida, Morocco – The social representation of the other in the Moroccan popular culture of Islam is mainly grounded in the culturally embedded conception of possession popularized by a maraboutic cultural worldview.
The concept of the other may be regarded as positional constituting whatever is radically different from the social categories of the same and whatever represents an urgent threat by virtue of that difference. Strangers, jinn, Jews and women may be regarded as archetypal figures of the other about whom the essential point to be made is not that they are feared because they are evil; rather they are evil because they are other, different and unfamiliar.
What predominates within this cultural worldview is that we are likely to be victims of other people’s machinations. In Moroccan sanctuaries, for instance, healers endeavor to help supplicants exteriorize their tensions by relieving them from any sense of responsibility for their wrongdoings, and by inflicting the blame on socially constructed scapegoats (stepsons, stepmothers, mothers-in-law, conjugal partners, neighbors, friends, spirits, the evil eye, etc.).
Supplicants are urged to hold on to the belief that there are evil others lurking in ambush to harm them; others who are targeted as scapegoats, and onto whom supplicants tend to project aspects of their experiences, fantasies, fears, memories and anxieties.
The process of projection may be directed towards stereotypical social agents who represent targets of contempt to the public and thus prove to be less intimidating to the supplicants. “[This] process whereby low social groups turn their figurative and actual power, not against those in authority, but against those who are even lower,” is known as displaced abjection (Stallybrass & White, 1986, p. 53).
Saint-goers who predominantly come from the underprivileged masses enduring all sorts of social deprivation at the bottom of social space project their problems and handicaps on other lower members of their social strata. Instead of blaming the dominant social classes that detain wealth and power and use them at the cost of the masses’ deprivation, the underprivileged may direct their hostilities towards those who are even lower.
They project onto their fellow social members the stereotypical aspects of the master: brutality, violence, deceit and cunning. Thus, the underprivileged appear as socially disorganized agglomerations engrossed with infighting and mutual incrimination incapable of living collectively.
In sanctuaries studied in previous research in Morocco, we have observed that both saint-goers and healers share the same worldview: caution and mistrust (latiq) is the rule of survival in a social jungle where the other is believed to lie in wait to deprive people of the little they own by means of magic spells.
The other is targeted because he is thought to be disposed to maliciously wreak grievous havoc on innocent people’s social life by resorting to witchcraft, the cast the evil eye, or the release of jinn.
Living with such suspicions may thwart the underprivileged social alliances against the possible grievances stemming from the misuse of power, and in consequence, leave the underprivileged populations dependent on dominant coercive social forces that keep them under control such as the Mahkzen represented by the traditional form of state or the tribunals of law, the sulta incarnated in the qaid or local authorities, baraka embodied in the Sultan-saint, or any other dominant apparatus of authority the populace see as capable of maintaining order and chasing/disciplining the evil other.
The paradigm of the other in Moroccan popular culture includes both human and jinn agents who are attributed responsibility for producing a destructive magic effect on targeted people. The average Moroccan subject is seen as a permeable social actor who undergoes the brutality and cunning of the other. He is released from all sorts of blame.
This theory of causation may alleviate the social subject’s psychological and emotional tensions and absolves them from being accountable for their own deeds. It is channelized through the popular belief that the machinery of the evil eye (al-‘ain), the female jinni pursuer (tab’a), the machinery of luck (zhar), air jinn (l-aryah), cold (l-berd), witchcraft (shur), and the spite of people (sem l-bashar) are all social forces that can steer the wheel of an average Moroccan’s fortune.
Such forces may affect his health, work, family and social life as a whole. In retaliation, people, according to Moroccan mythology, should equip themselves with prophylactic measures like baraka, talismans, incense (bkhur), omens, sacred relics (baruk) and prayers to shield themselves from the cast of the other’s evil eye and machinations. Hence social interactions seem to be ruled by mutual mistrust, which may wipe out all signs of collective will.
At this point, it is essential to say that this popular cultural worldview is structured by the dichotomy of the self vs. other. When patients consult traditional healers, the latter explains to them their fears and anxieties in terms of the existence of an evil other predisposed to harm their lives.
This other may be, for instance, the neighbor, with whom they share the quotidian social space of a neighborhood, and who keeps track of their life experiences. It is thought that as an act of envy or retribution on his part in return for resentment aroused by their achievements, he may cast upon them the evil eye.
The other may be the mother-in-law (‘guza), the patrimony of the patriarchal lineage, who consults witchcraft to restrict her son’s tenderness to his wife and preserve his dependence on her, or the wife who resorts to witchcraft to insure her husband’s continual sexual attraction towards her excluding all potential rivals.
The other may be an anonymous agent of a transcendental nature, a jinni, sent on demand or inadvertently attacks a human host on the rebound of a wrong committed. Both patients and healers share the assumption that jinn may possess humans because some magic spell used by envious others commands them to do so, or it may be the result of an accidental misconduct perpetrated by the patients themselves (al-aghlat m’a l-jenn/ wrongdoings against jinn: urinating in the wild, stepping over blood, over gutters, slaughtering at dusk, pouring hot water in a sink, calling jinn by non euphemistic names, swimming at dusk, staying in forsaken places or cemeteries, etc).
Demonizing the other is lucidly embodied in jinn possession that serves to maintain the prevalent moral standards according to which the social subject has to function and in defense of which all deviant subjects are to be, in one way or another, either reformed or incarcerated. In other words, the proper social conduct is organized round humans’ social rapport with jinn. Lots of commoners live under the constant fear that jinn may attack them if they are found guilty of impropriety or any other illicit exploit.
In this respect, the concept of jinn is tantamount to the concept of shame (hshuma) used as a tool of social control. It may be considered that the image of jinn has a more powerful effect since it is linked to the invisible and unseen. Shame rather depends on the gaze of other social agents—an external organizing principle that refers to one’s public image in society.
If morality is not well internalized, social demeanor by the honor-shame code may conduce to social hypocrisy in that social agents may dabble in illicit conduct while simultaneously pretending a convenient facade social appearance. According to George Murdock, societies fall into two taxonomies with regard to the manner in which they regulate social behavior. There are societies that educate their subjects by means of internalization of rules and prohibitions. And there are societies that rely on external means of repression, precautionary safeguards, such as avoidance rules and regimentations like veiling, seclusion and surveillance.
The concept of hshuma belongs to the second category of rules of conduct. It is an avoidance rule that does not enable the individual to internalize the sense of guilt. It is the public knowledge of one’s misdeed that is taken into account. Moroccan morality follows the same structure of the honor-shame code in culturally constructing possession as a means of social control. It conjures up invisible police agents in the form of jinn imagined to be everywhere watching over social subjects’ conduct and punishing wrongdoers.
For instance, people must do their ablutions on time, pray, be pious and adopt a proper social comportment in order to spare themselves the risk of a jinn attack. In popular imagination, prayers represent a decisive factor in self protection from possession. When we were doing fieldwork on the topic, we encountered plenty of jinn cases speaking through the voice of mediums during the process of eviction, saying that the sick person was burning them with prayers. The latter is believed to expel jinn out of human bodies. For instance, to make sure that the person is cured, the healer may call for prayer in one of his ears. If the patient remains calm, it is a sign that he is relieved. If he shows signs of agitation, it means that the jinni is still wriggling inside the possessed body under the pressure of the Word of God.
Generally speaking, common people believe that a proper religious demeanor may shield them from jinn attack. However in terms of educational morality, jinn phobia (living under constant fear from jinn attack) does not foster in social subjects the sense of guilt towards their public social conduct. Little guilt occurs in the fear instigated by jinn or hshuma. They remain mere external precautionary tools of behavior control like the veil, beard, djellaba, and gown. So far as the symbol of fear no longer scares social agents, they may do all possible forms of deceit. Let us illustrate this point with a comment on traditional forms of child care in Moroccan society.
Jinn phobia is a seminal cultural practice in Moroccan child rearing and socialization at the bottom of social space. Most parents did, and some still do, educate their children according to the cultural schema of bu’u-ism — the othering of jinn and culturally constructing it as a source of fear to the child who disobeys orders. Children do indeed respond to this tool of social control but do not internalize the why’s, what’s and how’s of social conduct. They obey out of fear, not out of understanding and perception.
An average Moroccan would tell you: “children are treated like children. When they grow up, they will understand.” Socialized to symbolic fear with external symbols such as bu‘u (a monstrous being), Rahmat Allah (a jinni named the Mercy of Allah), a euphemistic name of a female jinni, or Umna al–Ghoula (our Mother the Ghoul) to refrain from wrongdoing, the young subject’s embodied habitus grows with common tendencies of apprehending scarecrows of authority. If the social subject is not exposed to the process of internalization of moral standards, external precautionary safeguards prevail in their habitus. So far as they escape the attention of “scarecrows” like policemen, guards, or dogs, they are likely to plunge in all sorts of social improprieties or even criminal conduct, especially if they pursue the social trajectory of delinquency.
Moroccan micro realities are rife with examples of precautionary safeguards and scarecrows. Let us take an example from our routine life. The car traffic light in Moroccan regions like in the town where I live, for instance, often requires the presence of a policeman — a scarecrow. In European countries, most traffic lights are self monitored except in places or times where there can occur some traffic jams, you may probably find a policeman. Here, the traffic light and the policeman stand side by side, the latter watching over in case somebody may violate the law and drive through the red light.
The ongoing assumption is that if the policeman is not present as a symbol of authoritative penalization, motorists may drive through the red light. If we dart a glance at how motorcyclists, moped cyclists and bicyclists and pedestrians behave on Moroccan roads, we will immediately grasp the difference between internalization of rules and living with external means of surveillance.
This class of road users is rarely fined by the police unlike motorists who are in constant friction with them. The aftermath is that they break the law on a daily basis in front of the police, and are observed to be oblivious of the existence of a traffic law to the extent that some walk off the pavement and onto the road. On rare occasions, some civil save-life organizations address this epidemic of road accidents by organizing campaigns to mobilize road users to respect the law. Their members stand by crosswalks, and vigorously press pedestrians to use them and stop when the red light turns red for them.
Because these campaigns are infrequent and dispersed, they do not show any real impact on traffic culture. Nothing changes, and the population of pedestrians at least in the town where I live have evolved the habitus of walking onto the road as usual. We think that even cameras that seem to function well in Europe may not be effective in Morocco unless they are clothed in scarecrow uniforms.
Jinn phobia also structures the Moroccan domestic pathological system of sickness. Historically speaking, Moroccans scapegated jinn as being responsible for a variety of sicknesses. Westermarck (1926) argues that Moroccans used to believe that all sicknesses starting with “bu” betokened that a tribe of jinn was held responsible for their germination. We may list some examples in this respect: busaffir (jaundice), buhamrun (measles) believed to be caused by the jinn tribe of Wlad Belhmar, buzallum (sciatica), buglib (cholera), bumazwi (intestinal sickness), bughattat or butallis (nightmarish sleep), bushwik (red spots on the skin), bu‘ninij/bushniniq (semi-paralysis of shoulder articulation)…
When cholera spread in Morocco in 1895, the Average Moroccan believed that an army of jinn attacked the country. On the authority of Westermarck, people distinguished between violent and mild jinn attack. When the epidemic was very violent, jinn were presumably imagined to have pitched their tents inside the town walls; when the attack abated with few contaminations, jinn were conceived to be camping outside the town walls, and wantonly hitting their poisonous arrows now and again.
Westermarck was told at Tetwan that those who died were followed to the grave by an unusually huddling crowd because it was reckoned that the burial ceremony was a suitable occasion for jinn shooters to hunt their human enemies. If people did not huddle in crowds, they would run the risk of being shot by jinn snipers. The huddle was a shield. This cultural practice historically conveyed a very powerful image of the social need for solidarity and togetherness in times of stress and danger in Moroccan society.
To ease the social stress resulting from the burden of responsibility for one’s misconduct, Moroccan popular cultural worldview extends moral blame to the stereotype of women. In our predominant masculine cultural worldview enabled by male-oriented ideologies, women are demonized not only as witches, sorcerers, satanic beings, sexually promiscuous dealers and untrustworthy consorts but also as disease carriers. They are socially represented as bearers of venereal diseases and a source of contamination to the male, a chauvinistic attitude inspired by the patriarchal heritage. As Manhart, Dialmy, Ryan, Caroline and Mahjour put it:
“The term berd [associated with venereal diseases] sometimes represents a shortened version of berd dyal la ‘yalatte (“cold of women”), implying that the disease has its root in women…While it is believed that men can get berd because of exposure to cold, they are not subject to the same consequences for subsequently transmitting the illness. The corresponding term berd dyal rjal (“cold of men”) does not exist” (2000, p. 1374).
Culturally speaking, the term “cold of women” expresses a societal bias against women who occupy an inferior social position in our patriarchal social fabric. They are considered to bear sexual transmissible diseases and thus scapegoated as others threatening the male population with contamination. This biased view is unfortunately interiorized by some women themselves who accept it against their own best interests.
In fact, scapegoating the other is deeply ingrained in everyday Moroccan discourse. It is rationalized as common-sense assumptions that shape social interactions. Many Moroccans find it natural to inculpate the other of triggering mishaps in their lives. It is interwoven in their language that they are victims of fate, or of socially malevolent forces: the Evil Eye (‘ain/tqwas), envy (hsed), witchcraft (sihr), sorcery (tukal) or bad luck (zhar makaynsh). This mythic worldview resides in people’s daily language.
Let us take, for example, the linguistic construction of agency in Moroccan dialect. Wrong doings or accidental occurrences are always rendered in the passive in which the doer of the action is positioned as an affected participant to obfuscate agency. Moroccans say: “who/what caused you that?” (shkun/ash sbabek); “the bus runs from me” (msha ‘liya tubis) instead of “I missed the bus.” “The window pane hit me,” or “the glass dropped from me.” Linguistic constructions of this kind may reflect the lack of a feeling of positive agency and mirror a risk-avoider habitus socially constructed through distancing oneself from being responsible for one’s wrong/brave deeds.
Social subjects are positioned as recipients of subjective events initiated by others. Objects are also personified and endowed with capacities that affect the “I”. Moroccans’ cultural worldview is not centered on the “I”, that is on phenomenological human agency that can bring change. It is rather dissolved in the collective social structures –we, the tribe, family, structures, others, fate, divinities…, external social forces that steer the course of one’s destiny.
In this loosely structured social context, maraboutic elixirs are offered to save the underprivileged classes from the pressurizing responsibility of being constantly accountable for their life choices and trajectories. The best antidote to social responsibility is magical emancipation—the worlds of magic, Jinn possession, the cathartic releases of trance dancing, and the subjective empowering of Jinn eviction— all can serve to mask and deflect the misfortunes arising from capitalist contradictions and oppressions just as they may deflect the oppressions arising from local traditional orders.
Just as impediment (l-‘kes) in general is understood through the occult, impediment, in particular arising from capitalist micro realities, can also be understood in the same way. Imagining maraboutic holy figures bursting forth water from the ground, evoking food from nowhere and healing incurable diseases, breaking the fetters of reality, time, and place can help Average Moroccans to cope with the open sores of maimed dignity arising from capitalist as well as other economic and political sources.
Those taking it for-granted that the evil eye, jinn, or the work of magic has the capacity to ruin their lives will not lay the blame for their misfortunes and social malaise on institutional economic choices, which may therefore absolve the government and the local authorities beneath its jurisdiction from being accountable for miscarrying programs and incurring further social grievances to the underprivileged masses at the bottom of social space.
An average individual who fails in their job may attribute their failure to “colleagues,” “relatives”, “neighbors”, bad luck or envy, and thus get submerged in a world of divination, possession and magic while governments and structural policies are absolved from answerability, and go virtually unchecked.
Ironically speaking, how can we hold governments responsible for their wrong macro choices if we do not dare to hold ourselves responsible for our micro wrong deeds?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy